Labor Problem in Undeveloped Countries

HON. JAMES BRYCE IN WINDSOR MAGAZINE May 1 1906

Labor Problem in Undeveloped Countries

HON. JAMES BRYCE IN WINDSOR MAGAZINE May 1 1906

Labor Problem in Undeveloped Countries

BY HON. JAMES BRYCE IN WINDSOR MAGAZINE.

The learned author of “The Holy Roman Empire" and “The American Commonwealth,” who now holds the post of Secretary for Ireland, in the Liberal Government, writes with insight and conviction on a problem which is to-day confronting Englishmen in connection with the working of the mines in South Africa.

LAND and labor have been the two main sources of strife between Europeans and the backward peoples ever since the colonization and conquest of countries outside Europe began. It was out of the taking of their lands by the Spaniards and the English that ware between the settlers and the aborigines first began in America and have lasted down to our own days.

But these land disputes have now virtually ended, for the whole of both America and Africa, as well as Northern Asia and India, has passed under the dominion of nations from Europe; and where whites leave natives in possession of their own land, they do this either from motives of policy, or because they are not yet numerous enough or not yet sufficiently acclimatized to appropriate these lands for themselves.

Accordingly it is with labor questions more than land questions that ' economists and governments are now chiefly concerned.

The beginning of these labor questions—between civilized men and savages—dates from the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese, imitating the Mussalman corsairs and land-raiders of North Africa, began to seize the blacks of the West African coasts and sell them as slaves in Portugal.

That exploration of Africa, of which the Portuguese are justly proud—for in it they showed remarkable courage and enterprise—was no less concerned with the pursuit of

slave labor and gold than with the c

spreading of the Gospel or the advancement of discovery. It was half crusading, half commercial.

Then, and for three centuries afterwards, men saw nothing incompatible in destroying, or enslaving, men’s bodies while seeking to save their souls.

When the Spaniards occupied the Antilles, the first thing they did was to set the natives to work in the mines ; and when these unhappy creatures died out, as they soon did under harsh treatment, negroes were brought from Africa to fill the void and provide the labor needed, both for mining and tillage.

Slavery had by this time disappeared from Western Europe, though a comparatively mild form of serfdom lingered in some districts. Prisoners of war were no longer, as had been the case in the ancient world, made slaves of. But when the white races came into contact with races of another color, they ignored the principles they applied among themselves and treated the African blacks and the American aborigines as no better than cattle, without human rights, and, in fact, for the use of those conquerors who could capture them.

So began the Slave Trade, the most horrible form which the oppression of the weaker by the stronger races has ever taken.

There was an economic need prompting it. Here were fertile tracts to be cultivated, and no labor on the spot to cultivate them, because the natives, naturally feeble and in-

dolent, had been driven away or extinguished by harsh treatment, and the white settlers were, or thought themselves, unfit for open-air toil under a torrid sun. Thus slavery came to prevail, not only in the West India Islands, but in the southern part of North America and over most of South America, for more than three hundred years.

Justified as an economic necessity, it did provide a sort of solution, though a very wasteful as well as a most inhuman solution, of an urgent economic problem. From the time when the English began to colonize Virginia and the country from Virginia southward to the Gulf of Mexico there was so little white labor to be had, and that little would have been so costly, that there seemed no expedient possible except to get the labor of an inferior race accustomed to support tropical heat.

Such labor was obtainable only by kidnapping, and kidnapping excited no horror.

In our time the difficulty I have described has reappeared in a different form. White people have conquered and established themselves in tropical countries where they find mines they wish to work and lands they wish to cultivate. These countries are not empty, as the southern part of the United States was practically empty when the Carolinas and Georgia were formed into colonies— I say practically empty, because the native Indian tribes were few in number, and most of them soon died off or moved west. But these countries now annexed to European powers are tolerably well peopled.

In South Africa and East Africa, for instance, there is a negro population which holds its ground, and, indeed, increases faster than the whites.

The difficulty is that this native population does not want to work, and in particular does not wantto work underground, though mine-labor is the very kind of labor which whites are most anxious to secure.

Here is the old labor question and the old race question over again. This difficulty has now become acute in South Africa. I take South Africa as a familiar instance, but this same problem has emerged in other regions also.

No sooner was the South African war ®ver than that blissful period of high dividends, which the European companies that own the rich gold mines of the Transvaal had been promising themselves as the result of the war, was found to be thrown back into the future by the want of labor for mining operations. The natives had prospered during the war—indeed, they were the only people who seemed to have got something out of it, for they have had high wages as camp and transport workers, and have become possessed of a certain number of cattle, so they were at first even less disposed to work than before.

The mines of the Rand district alone are said to need more than three hundred thousand native laborers, and were not obtaining, when the recent war came to an end, anything approaching that number.

What is to be done? Two centuries ago the answer of the civilized races would have been prompt: “Kidnap as many blacks as you need and drive them to work by the lash.”

This expedient is, however, no longer possible, though it is no doubt true that a good many Europeans settled in tropical countries would still like to be allowed to obtain labor by force. Their talk shows that they

are not far removed from the feelings of the Portuguese navigators, or the companions of Columbus, or the people who carried negroes from Guinea to South Carolina in the eighteenth century. Direct contact with an inferior race is apt to demoralize the European settler, and he drifts unconsciously back towards barbarism.

But the opinion of European nations at home forbids a recourse to the old methods. The most natural alternative would be to attract and use white labor. But white labor, which in some of these tropical countries is unavailable because the climate is too unhealthy or the heat too great, is in all of them too expensive. Wages far higher than those paid in Europe would be required to induce Europeans to face the conditions of the tropics, and mining or tillage carried on at so heavy an outlay would cease to be profitable.

The mine owner or planter is therefore driven to the only remaining alternative—that of endeavoring to import on a large scale laborers of some foreign tropical race, fit to work in the torrid zone, but willing to work for mush less than white men would demand.

This plan suggested itself a good many years ago to the sugar cultivators of Demerara and to the French engineers who contracted for the making of the Panama Canal: the former imported coolies from India, the latter Chinese. So the planters of Hawaii brought in Chinese and Japanese; so the planters of Queensland in Australia have brought in Kanakas from the Isles of the Pacific.

But even this device is not always practicable, for the white population, if possessed of political power, may forbid the immigration of a colored

race, which will depress the rate of wages and constitute an element either not capable of assimiliation or likely to lower the stock with which it mingles.

As awakened philanthropy now forbids slavery, so also awakened democracy forbids the influx of a type of mankind deemed unfit for social and political equality. The prohibition of Chinese immigration by the United States, by the Canadian Dominion, and by Australia is a familiar instance of this sentiment. And the desire of the Transvaal mine owners to bring in Indians or Chinese for the service of the mines is at this moment arrested by the general feeling of the middle and humbler classes of the white population of South Africa.

The whites are already in a minority in that country; so they fear, not unreasonably, the intrusion of a new colored element, which might, if it were to blend with the blacks, render the latter more formidable. So the matter stands, and it is now suggested that, instead of Chinese, negroes from some other part of Africa may be imported, each batch for a short period of service, and then carried back again to their homes.

In Queensland a somewhat similar difficulty has arisen. The sugar planters of the hotter parts of that state have kept up the working of their estates by the help of Pacific Islanders, brought from Western Polynesia and sent back after some years. The democratic sentiment of the Australian masses has resolved to stop this practice; and it is not yet clear how the sugar plantations are in future to be cultivated.

These problems of the relation of race differences to labor supply are not newT problems. In one sense, they

are as old as civilization itself. They became specially acute—as already observed—when America was settled and the coasts of Africa explored at the end of the fifteenth century. They have now in our own day been again accentuated by the intrusion of European powers into countries inhabited by backward races.

* *

(In all countres, in civilized France, Germany, and England, in the civilized United States, the relation of the working men to their employers is fertile in occasions for dispute. There is constant difficulty in adjusting the claim of the worker to his share in the gain derived from manufacturing or commercial industry. Strikes and lock-outs are the natural result of the opposing claims of the two parties, and strikes sometimes lead to breaches of the peace, especially where the laboring class is not organized in trades unions.

The sight of the ease and luxury in which the wealthy class lives excites envy among those who feel that their toil has contributed to this luxury, and who have themselves obtoined a share of the gain which never gives them more than the comforts, often little more than the bare necessaries, of life. There is apt to spring up a jealousy between classes, perhaps even a permanent bitterness and hostility.

Yet in civilized countries where the laboring class is entirely of European stock, this hostility is relieved and reduced by a measure of human sympathy, by the fact that all classes enjoy equal civil rights, and in free countries by the fact that they also enjoy equal political rights, and that the political means of redressing grievances are equally available to all. The sense of a common nationality and a common pride in national

greatness diminishes the feeling of antagonism which the contrast between riches and poverty provokes.

But where the laboring class belong to a different race, especially if that race is of a different color, these mitigating influences have less play. Sometimes they disappear altogether and are replaced by a feeling of complete 'severance.

The white employer has nothing in common with the Kaffir or coolie or Chinese workman. The influence of a common religion—which in civilized countries, counts for something, though for less than might have been expected—is here usually absent. In South Africa the employer seems to prefer that the native should remain a heathen, partly because the whites generally profess to think that he is not so good a worker, partly—it may be feared—because they think that if he is a Christian, he is brought nearer to the whites.

The white man, whether he be an employer or not, feels a sense of superiority to the colored man which disposes him to contempt, often to harshness and injustice. It is only the higher and purer characters that can be trusted to deal with their inferiors, who are practically at their mercy, in the same way as they would deal with their equals.

Impunity demoralizes average mankind; and as the public opinion of the whites, taken as a whole, becomes somewhat demoralized when they control a subject race, it does not restrain acts of harshness and injustice. In such a state of things those difficulties incident to the relations of capital and labor which have been already referred to may become aggravated. The colored laboring class may become a dangerous class, because it stands quite apart from the whites.

It is a foreign element, possibly a hostile element. Till it has become organized, it may not be able to engage in the open struggle of a strike ; but when it reaches that stage, the strikes are likely to be more formidable.

Menawhile its presence brings serious political difficulties. If the country does not possess free selfgoverning institutions, as is the case in many British colonies, the Government is bound to protect the foreign laborers, and often finds this no easy task. If the country has free institutions, the question arises whether the backward race should be admitted to the electoral suffrage and to other political rights. Much is to be said on both sides of this question, which has been largely debated in South Africa and some other British colonies, and still more debated in the United States.

How are the difficulties which have here been indicated to be met? They are difficulties likely to last for a long time, because it must be a long time before either the colored races in the tropical lands grow civilized enough to secure some sort of equality, or before the white races become sufficiently acclimatized to labor there. There is, moreover, no present sign that the whites will try to acclimatize themselves in such lands, for the fact that unskilled labor is now performed by the colored people deprades such labor in the eyes of the whites.

The circumstances of different tropical countries differ widely, and so also must the remedies differ which may be suggested for the evils described. Only one remedy can be said to be of universal application. It is that of treating the inferior* races with justice and humanity.